Thursday, July 6, 2023

The Paradox of Perseverance and Apostasy

Verbum Domini Manet in Aeternum
The Word of the Lord Endures Forever
The concept of justification by God’s grace through faith in Christ is central to Christian theology. Paul’s writings emphasize that believers are considered righteous by God through Christ’s sacrifice, despite their inherent sinfulness. This righteousness is imputed to believers through faith, a truth echoed in the faith of Old Testament saints like Abraham. At the same time, God’s word also teaches two paradoxical ideas: 1) that a person who is a believer in Christ can forfeit, or lose that faith, and 2) that God who works faith in men by means of God’s word will cause men to persevere in that faith.

According to Paul’s writings in Romans and Galatians, God justifies believers by reckoning or counting them as righteous, even though they are not inherently righteous.1 God does this not because of anything we do; his favor is unmerited. We are saved by God’s grace through faith in Christ because of His death and resurrection.2 God sees believers through the lens of Christ’s righteousness, despite the fact that we are sinful.3 The believer is called to actively strive against the sinful flesh,4 considering it as good as dead because of Christ’s crucifixion.5 This concept of justification through faith finds its foundation not only in the New Testament but also in the experiences of Old Testament believers. Consider Abraham: scripture affirms that Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.6 Like Abraham, we believe, and God counts us righteous because of our faith. We are considered Abraham’s children by faith.7 Thus, the nature of justification highlights how God’s reckoning of righteousness extends to both old and new testament believers, demonstrating His consistent faithfulness throughout all times. He deals with all mankind in the same way.

While believers are justified and counted righteous through faith in Christ, they are not exempt from the ongoing struggle with their sinful flesh. Paul describes this battle against the power of sin in Romans Chapter 7. He describes the tension of having “sin living in me,” acknowledging the coexistence of the redeemed inner man and the lingering influence of sin.8 The sinful flesh is not eradicated; rather, we can consider it dead and defeated because of Christ’s work on the cross.9 Believers are called to actively starve their flesh and not gratify its desires.10 This duality within the Christian experience reveals that while the inner man delights in God’s law, believers must persistently strive to overcome their sinful inclinations. It is an ongoing journey of sanctification where the inner transformation by the Spirit is met with the arduous task of mortifying the flesh. This tension between righteousness and sinfulness in the life of a believer is often referred to as “simul justus et peccator” in Lutheran theology, which means “simultaneously justified and sinner.” This concept underscores the paradoxical nature of the Christian’s state, being both declared righteous through faith and yet still struggling with the effects of sin. In the words of the Formula of Concord, Epitome:

“We believe, teach, and confess that original sin is not a minor corruption. It is so deep a corruption of human nature that nothing healthy or uncorrupt remains in man’s body or soul, in his inward or outward powers11...This damage cannot be fully described.12 It cannot be understood by reason, but only from God’s Word. We affirm that no one but God alone can separate human nature and this corruption of human nature from each other. This will fully come to pass through death, in the blessed resurrection. At that time, our nature, which we now bear, will rise and live eternally without original sin and be separated and divided from it13 (FC Ep. I, 8-10).”

Yet, though we were by nature children of wrath, God graciously saved us and made us alive in Christ.14

As there is a paradoxical element in the Christian’s nature, so too there is a paradox that must be acknowledged when discussing the faith of the Christian and the possibility of falling away from it. This is more commonly known as election or predestination. The concept of election or predestination is the understanding that God, in His sovereign will, chooses people for salvation in Christ.15 Scripture also teaches, however, that man is entirely responsible for his damnation. In the words of the Solid Declaration, “Few receive the word and follow it. Most despise the word and will not come to the wedding.16 The cause for this contempt for the word is not God’s foreknowledge but the perverse human will (FCSD XI, 41).” Consequently, Holy Scripture is littered with calls to repent, and to guard against falling away.

These biblical teachings reflect a tension between divine sovereignty and human responsibility. On one hand, it affirms that salvation is entirely the work of God, as He alone is responsible for granting faith and securing the believer’s eternal destiny. This aligns with passages such as John 10:27-28, Romans 8:28, and Ephesians 1:3-6, which emphasize God’s role in choosing, protecting, and preserving His people. On the other hand, scripture recognizes the reality of human accountability and the potential for falling away. The paradox lies in holding these truths in tension, affirming both the divine initiative in salvation and the necessity of human response and perseverance.

The language of “losing salvation” can be misleading, as it implies misplacement rather than a deliberate choice (Cooper, 2018). It seems to suggest that it is something that happens to you rather than something for which you are responsible. While no external force can pluck believers from Christ’s hand, individuals can reject Christ and willfully apostatize themselves. Jesus lamented over Jerusalem, the Jews who were not willing to be gathered together by Christ as a hen gathers her chicks under her wing.17 As he faces death by stoning, Stephen calls his murderers stiff-necked people with uncircumcised hearts, who always resist the Holy Spirit,18 which is the cause of their faithlessness. Living in unrepentant sin can lead to the forfeiture of faith, as sin destroys faith (Cooper, 2018).19 This tension between the possibility of falling away and God’s perseverance of His people is a paradox and cannot be resolved by human reason. Neither element should be ignored in favor of the other; neither scriptural truth should be used to cancel the other out (Cooper, 2018).

The author of the letter to the Hebrews warns against falling away from the faith, emphasizing the danger of a hardened heart and turning away from God.20 He gives the examples of Israel’s rebellion and unbelief as a caution.21 Similarly, Paul warns against falling away as Hymenaeus and Alexander did.22 He warns the Galatians who were trying to be justified by the law after having believed the Gospel preached to them had fallen from grace and were cut off from Christ.23 Peter describes false teachers who lead others astray and who are destined for destruction.24 Peter affirms that both the false teachers and those led astray have fallen from the faith;25 he does not say that they did not have genuine faith to begin with.

Paul and Peter probably learned this from Jesus Himself. Peter’s epistle echoes what Jesus teaches in the parable of the sower. In Matthew 13:18-23, Jesus explains the meaning of the parable, which depicts different types of soil representing the condition of people’s hearts in receiving the Word of God. The seed that falls on rocky ground and among thorns symbolizes those who initially receive the Word with joy but later fall away due to persecution or the cares of the world. This parable illustrates that genuine believers can face obstacles or temptations that lead them astray from their faith. Paul’s language of being cut off from Christ reminds us of Jesus’ teaching that He is the vine and we Christians are the branches.26 He urges the disciples to remain in Him, lest they become like branches that have been cut off from the vine which are gathered up and thrown into the fire.

Cooper points out that the reception of the Word and the participation in the sacraments are the means by which God works in us, nurturing and sustaining our faith (Cooper, 2018). This makes sense, particularly in light of John 15. Jesus calls His disciples to remain in Him. He repeats the admonition several times. How are we to remain in Jesus? By eating His body and blood, which is real food and real drink:

“Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I in them. Just as the living Father sent me and I live because of the Father, so the one who feeds on me will live because of me.27”

Through means of grace, and particularly the Sacrament of the Altar, Jesus “perseveres” His Christians, guards them against falling away, and empowers them to remain steadfast.

The Solid Declaration reflects the paradoxical nature of the biblical teaching on election and does not speculate beyond what scripture says (FCSD XI 53, 64). It acknowledges that the doctrine of election is both mysterious and profound, encompassing the tension of divine sovereignty and human responsibility. It confesses God’s choice of individuals for salvation in Christ is an act of His pure grace, independent of any merit on our part. It affirms the nature of salvation, emphasizing that God alone is responsible for granting eternal life to believers, and that this teaching about election should be a comfort to Christians (FCSD XI 45-49). At the same time, the Solid Declaration recognizes the reality of human accountability, as individuals bear responsibility for their own rejection of God’s saving grace and their resulting damnation (FCSD, XI). This understanding aligns with the paradoxical nature of election presented throughout Scripture, affirming both the sovereignty of God and the human response to His grace. From the Solid Declaration, we learn that matters such as how election works from God’s perspective should not be investigated beyond what scripture tells us, and that the teaching about election should not be considered apart from Christ:

“We neither can nor should investigate and fathom everything in this article, the great apostle Paul declares. After having argued much about this article from God’s revealed word, as soon as he comes to the point where he shows what God has reserved for His hidden wisdom about this mystery, he suppresses and cuts it off with the following words, ‘Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments and how inscrutable His ways! For who has known the mind of the Lord?’28 In other words, we cannot know about matters outside of and beyond what God has revealed in His word. This eternal election of God is to be considered in Christ, and not outside of or without Christ29 (FCSD XI 64-65).”

In conclusion, the doctrine of justification by God’s grace through faith is foundational to Christianity. Christians, though justified and regarded as righteous through Christ, continue to wrestle with their sinful flesh. The admonitions against falling away serve as sober reminders of the significance of perseverance and the perils of unrepentant sin. It is essential to embrace these paradoxical truths, recognizing the danger of apostasy while concurrently relying on God’s ongoing work of preservation through His means of grace, His Word and sacraments. The Holy Spirit works through His means of grace to strengthen and sustain the Christian in the faith. Through God’s Word by the working of the Holy Spirit, believers find assurance and steadfastness in Christ. ###

End Notes

1. Romans 3:24
2. Ephesians 2:1-10
3. Galatians 3:27
4. Galatians 5:16-17
5. Romans 6:5-10
6. Romans 4:3; Galatians 3:6
7. Galatians 3:7-9
8. Romans 7:17-25
9. Romans 6:11
10. Galatians 5:16
11. Romans 3:10-12
12. Psalm 19:12
13. Job 19:26-27; 1 Corinthians 15:53
14. Ephesians 2:3-5
15. Ephesians 1:4-5; John 10:28
16. Matthew 22:3-6
17. Matthew 23:37
18. Acts 7:51
19. 1 John 1:8-10; 3:7-10
20. Hebrews 3:12-14
21. Hebrews 6:4-6
22. 1 Timothy 1:19-20
23. Galatians 5:4
24. 2 Peter 2
25. 2 Peter 2:18, 20-22
26. John 15:1-8
27. John 6:56-57
28. Romans 11:33-34
29 Matthew 11:28; 17:5; John 10:9; 14:6; 16:14; Ephesians 1:4-6

Works Cited

McCain, P. T. (Ed.). (2005). Concordia: The Lutheran Confessions: A Reader’s Edition of the Book of Concord (Pocket Edition). Formula of Concord - Solid Declaration, XI (Election). Concordia Publishing House.

Cooper. (2018, January 31). Can a True Christian Fall Away From the Faith? Just and Sinner. Retrieved June 15, 2023, from

Sunday, March 26, 2023

Thoughts on Death and Resurrection in the Old Testament

C.S. Lewis, in his book “Reflections on the Psalms,” suggests that by the time of Jesus, Jewish theology had evolved to include life after death as we understand it today, as well as the concept of resurrection. Lewis wrote that previous generations of Christian theologians seem to have thought that the authors of the Psalms understood theology from a Christian perspective as we do today; that they wanted eternal joy and feared damnation. Lewis, however, does not think they had even the same concept of death as Christians.

Though he cites many portions of the Psalms to make his case, Lewis’ idea can be challenged. The idea of an afterlife and resurrection is present long before the time of Jesus’ earthly life and even before the composition of the Psalms. In fact, the belief in life after death is a central component of the entire Bible.

In the book of Daniel, the prophet writes:

“Multitudes who sleep in the dust of the earth will awake: some to everlasting life, others to shame and everlasting contempt” (Daniel 12:2).

This passage clearly indicates that the dead will be raised from the grave, and it suggests that there will be different fates for the righteous and the wicked.

Similarly, in the book of Job, it is written:

“I know that my redeemer lives, and that in the end he will stand on the earth. And after my skin has been destroyed, yet in my flesh I will see God” (Job 19:25-26).

Job expresses his confidence that he will see God even after his body has been destroyed. Additionally, some theologians, such as Franz Delitzsch, believe that Job is the oldest book in the Bible. If this is true, it makes Job’s confession all the more significant.

In his book, Isaiah writes:

“Your dead will live; their bodies will rise. You who dwell in the dust, wake up and shout for joy” (Isaiah 26:19).

This passage refers to the resurrection of the dead, and it is clear that the author believes in a physical resurrection.

Lewis’s thesis is further undermined by the fact that the Sadducees, whom Lewis identifies as a remnant of the older way of thinking, were a small and marginalized group in Jewish society. The Pharisees, who were the dominant group, believed in both an afterlife and a bodily resurrection. As Kretzmann notes, “The Pharisees accepted the resurrection of the dead as a fundamental tenet of the faith, and they based it on the Scriptures.” Similarly, Keil & Delitzsch declare in their commentary, “The belief in a resurrection is so firmly established in the Old Testament, that even the Sadducees could not entirely escape its influence.” The idea of the resurrection was not something that developed late in the history of Israel. It is a concept that was present in Jewish theology from an early period; from the time of Job who expected to see his redeemer after death; to Abraham who expected God to return his son Isaac to him from the dead because of God's promise (Genesis 22:1-19); and the prophets who, like Elijah, even raised the dead by the power of God.

There was certainly development in the theological understanding of God’s people. As God came to them and revealed more of His word to them by His prophets, the blurry picture they had of the one who would crush the serpent’s head and restore all things came into sharper focus over time. Rather than a development of their theology, however, one could think of this as a gradual revelation. The development was not a natural evolution through stages of philosophical complexity as Lewis seems to suggest. It was a gradual expansion of their collective understanding, meticulously directed by the Almighty and Omnipotent God who created all things. He prepared them for the day when He would Himself enter His creation to redeem it from sin, death, and the devil. As the author of the letter to the Hebrews explains, those who came before us believed, but they did not get to see the fulfillment of God's promise to send a savior. 

We, however, now fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfector of our faith, who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. He is the fulfillment of all these things. He is the resurrection and the life. Because He lives, we too shall live, having been baptized into His death and His resurrection. This is the faith we have in common with all those who came before us. And we will all rise together on the Last Day.  Even though our bodies have been destroyed, in our flesh we shall see Jesus. 

Works Cited

Delitzsch, Franz. A New Commentary on Genesis, Vol. I. Translated by Sophia Taylor, T&T Clark, 1888.

Keil, Carl Friedrich, and Franz Delitzsch. Commentary on the Old Testament. Hendrickson Publishers, 2006.

Kretzmann, Paul E. Popular Commentary of the Bible. Kretzmann Project, 1921.

Lewis, C.S. Reflections on the Psalms. Mariner Books, 1958.

Saturday, February 11, 2023

The Good News of the Kingdom of God

But he [Jesus] said, “I must proclaim the good news of the kingdom of God to the other towns also, because that is why I was sent.” (Luke 4:43)

Last week, two Jehovah’s Witnesses came to my door. I invited them in and we spent about an hour talking. They said they wanted to talk to me about the kingdom of God. According to them, Jesus’ purpose on earth was to proclaim the kingdom of God. They pointed to Luke 4:43 as proof of this.

The Jehovah’s Witnesses said that the kingdom of God is a real, physical kingdom. It is a government in heaven right now. It isn’t in the world yet, which is obvious by how much evil happens in the world. But it will be, and it was Jesus’ purpose to announce it’s coming.

On the surface, there seems to be much that is orthodox about what they were saying. Unfortunately, we didn’t get to get into the topic too deeply before they had to leave. What is the kingdom of God? Why is its proclamation good news? How does one enter the kingdom of God anyway? What was Jesus’ actual purpose? I suspect our theologies would diverge quite sharply with the answers to these questions.

The Pharisees asked Jesus a similar question: When would the kingdom of God come? He didn’t give them a date, a time, a location, or signs to look for. He said the kingdom of God was already among them:

Once, on being asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God would come, Jesus replied, “The coming of the kingdom of God is not something that can be observed, nor will people say, ‘Here it is,’ or ‘There it is,’ because the kingdom of God is in your midst” (Luke 17:20-21).

The phrase which the NIV renders as “in your midst” in Luke 17:21 could also be translated as “within you.” In other words, Jesus could be saying one of two things. He could be saying that the kingdom of God was in their midst because He, Jesus, the Anointed One, was among them. Or, he could be telling them that the kingdom of God was something inside of them, which is spiritual and intangible.

The “in your midst” interpretation of Luke 17:21 seems to be better just based on the context of the conversation. Jesus is talking to the Pharisees, who do not believe in him. The idea that Jesus would tell unbelievers that they have the spiritual kingdom of God within them doesn’t make a lot of sense. After all, this is the group whom Jesus calls 1) sons of the devil, and 2) a brood of vipers. It does make sense, however, for Jesus, who claims to be the Messiah who establishes God’s kingdom, to say that the kingdom has arrived among them because He has arrived among them.

The kingdom of God is certainly both spiritual and intangible, but that doesn’t make it fake. It is a real thing. It is the redemption of man from sin and death; it is the redemption of creation from the curse. This redemption has been accomplished by Jesus’ death on the cross. We are made citizens of this kingdom of God when we come to faith in Christ and are baptized into Him, into His death, and His resurrection. This is what makes the proclamation of the kingdom of God good news.

And though we are truly subjects of God’s kingdom by our faith in Christ, we remain pilgrims in this world. God’s kingdom is our true home. Here in this fallen world, as the author of the letter to the Hebrews writes, we have no continuing city. Our citizenship is in heaven. But, this current spiritual reality will one day become a physical reality when Christ returns on the Last Day to judge the world.

When Christ returns in glory, He will establish for all eternity the kingdom of God. The kingdoms of this world will become the kingdom of our Lord, and of His Christ.

When we pray the Lord’s Prayer, we are praying that God’s kingdom would come. It certainly will come with or without our prayer, as Jesus has told us. In teaching us to pray “Thy kingdom come”, Jesus teaches us to pray for several things. He teaches us to pray for the Holy Spirit that we would believe and continue to believe; that we would lead a godly life as His subject; that He would continue to grow His kingdom by bringing more people into it; and also that He would finally establish His kingdom on earth.

Christians are already subjects of God’s kingdom. We have been brought from the dominion of darkness to God’s kingdom of light by the redemption of Christ:

For he has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins (Colossians 1:13-14).

So, when will God establish His kingdom? Well, it is technically already established. That’s what Jesus tells us. That’s the good news of the kingdom of God: that by Jesus’ atoning death and resurrection we have been set free from the tyranny of sin, death, and the devil, and have therefore been brought into His kingdom. We are simply waiting for the resurrection on the Last Day when God’s real spiritual kingdom will become a physical reality. ###